After a week unlike any the NFL has ever seen, one thing is clear: “Stick to football” is no longer an option.
As Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said Thursday night after leading his team to a win over the Chicago Bears, “as much as some people want us to just shut up and play football … sports and politics have always intersected.”
Never was that more apparent than last Sunday, when teams around the NFL wrestled with what to do during the national anthem following incendiary comments from President Trump. A movement that started last year with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the anthem as a way of protesting social injustice and police brutality against minorities, was reignited by the president’s words and now burns brighter than ever.
Players took Trump's description of those who knelt as a "son of a b----" and said they should be fired as an attack, and the backlash was swift. The Buffalo Bills held a team meeting last Saturday night with the intention of doing something together as a team, but not surprisingly couldn’t come to a consensus.
“An hour was a long discussion,” team captain Eric Wood said. “But on such a heavy topic, ultimately it wasn’t enough.”
The Bills ultimately decided to release a team statement that read in part “Our players have the freedom to express themselves in a respectful and thoughtful manner and we all agreed that our sole message is to provide and to promote an environment that is focused on love and equality."
Following that message, a dozen players elected to kneel for the national anthem before the game against the Denver Broncos. Each of them has been active not just in social causes but in community charitable endeavors. The Buffalo News offered all 12 the opportunity to explain, in their own words, why they knelt. Here are their responses:
“I have a lot of respect for a lot of the guys who did take a stand for what they saw were injustices going on in America at the time. Colin Kaepernick, he took that stand at the time he did because he saw the injustices what was going on when it came to police brutality in black communities, and he said, 'You know what, I'm going to speak up. I'm going to say something.' After he did that public display, privately, me, guys like (the Eagles') Malcolm Jenkins, we started doing stuff like going and meeting with the police chief in Philadelphia, because we wanted to understand the relationship between police and the community. In the private realm, that's what we were trying to do while Kaepernick was doing his public thing. Malcolm ended up going public, holding up the fist. You've seen the Bennett brothers, Marshawn Lynch, a lot of guys.
"For me personally, I look at it this way: Everybody doesn't have to be the same person when it comes to a movement. There are going to be people who are the people in the front. Martin Luther King Jr. wasn't the only activist. He was the head of it; he was the guy that everybody saw, but there were a lot of other people who helped influence the civil rights movement, black and white. People who you never hear about in the history books, but they're just as instrumental.
"Once those comments came from President Trump about calling them SOBs, I think me, a lot of guys felt the same way, 'OK, we don't think you realize how many of us you're calling SOBs.' It's not just those guys. It might be easy if you say, ‘OK, all the guys that should be fired are these guys.’ That's like 12 people. You can name them off. When it's 200 or 300, it's totally different. Those 'SOBs' that you're talking about, that's all of us. So we stand with these guys. We're trying to support this movement. We're trying to fight against injustice anywhere.”
“It was important for me because of the comment the President made. I respect all military. My great-grandpa was in the military. It's just, I'm the son of a queen, though. I'm not a son of a b---. So that was my purpose for taking a knee.”
“I mean, me personally, I just felt like it was right for me to do. After the collective conversation we had with the team, we all just kind of came together and said we're going to be together and support one another. So I felt like that was the right thing for me to do at that moment.”
“Well, I was extremely hurt, to be honest. Because at first, everybody has their own opinions. People believe in different things. They stand up for whatever they want to stand up for. That’s their right. Some of the words that the President used, it just rubbed me the wrong way. It really did. I was upset and I was frustrated and that’s the way I wanted to express myself at the game. I took a knee, I started stretching, I was angry. You know, I was hurt. Just that, like I said before after the game, someone like the President and being our leader of this country where we, in front of millions and millions and millions of people, they look at America and see the type of words and things he’s saying about us. It just got to me. It really did.”
“It was important to me because, I've always felt, when Kaepernick came out, understanding why he took a knee, I thought that was commendable. I agree with him from the very beginning.
"When the President made those remarks, it was almost like conviction. I took it personal. I was really talking to myself like I really need to show my family, my friends, my community — everybody back home looking at me — who I am and what I represent. Just because I'm not kneeling, I wasn't agreeing with anything that the anthem stood for. If you look at the history of the anthem, it's not in favor of people of my color. Once I learned all of that ... it was a no-brainer for me to take a knee this Sunday with my teammates. It's a thing we all talked about the night before.
"For me, I've enjoyed to stand, but I don't stand for the anthem anymore. I stand for my family, for my daughter, for my son who is on the way. That's why I stand. I don't really stand for the anthem. When you see me standing in the future, that's why I'm standing. I took a knee for my teammates in solidarity to show that I agree with Kap, and I'm against social injustice.”
"It's been important to me. It wasn't just Sunday. What really opened the door for me was just the open dialogue that this organization provided for us to voice our opinion and just to kind of let us know it's OK if you would like to participate, partake, in what's going on. I truly believe what's going on in the world, it's unfair for a lot of people. I know unfair is probably not the word, but I support it. I support the cause.
"We're trying to make a difference in this world. I know people who deal with these situations. A lot of us are protected at times by the NFL shield, but it's not going to be forever. I just want to always remember that I'm no different from anybody else in this world. Just to bring that unity and show of support of who we are as people. It's easier for us than other people, but we have a platform to really make a difference in this world, and it's important that we use it."
"Social injustice and the level that it's happening. You look at these urban cities, and more and more people are being gunned down or being murdered by police officers, more than suburban cities. I took a knee for what I believed in. I didn't do it for the publicity or for any other reason. It's truly been on my heart for a very long time. Me, I'll be having a biracial daughter. My girlfriend, she's white. So I don't want my daughter coming into the world feeling that hate is OK. I don't want her thinking that one side of the family is more superior than the other side of the family, so for me, I took that personal."
"My mom told me not to speak on this. She don't want me to do any interviews or speak on it. There's so many different viewpoints in regards to what's going on with the topic. A lot of people are getting themselves into trouble and it's becoming a distraction based on things that they've said. Collectively, as a nation, we understand the significance of the flag and what's at stake."
"Obviously, it was in response to our Presidents' comments, calling people who were peacfully protesting SOBs. For me, with the background being Charlotteseville and calling neo-Nazis and KKK members fine people. Making that comparison and drawing a hard line vs. NFL players who were doing something peaceful really touched me. For the guys who are taking a knee and trying to bring awareness to social injustice and inequlaities in this country doesn't mean they're not patriots. It doesn't mean they don't love their country, because we do. We have great privileges here. But being a U.S citizen, I also want to bring attention to things that need change."
"All I can say right now is that, I really don't have to explain. If I feel like I've got to explain to you why I took a knee, then people have to explain to me why they made the decision they made. Or why they consider me as being involved, and them not being involved. I can tell you one thing, I have the utmost respect for this country, the flag, everything that it represents. As far as the words that's in (the national anthem,) I feel like it's contradicting to a certain extent.
"For me to salute and stand for the flag, it's contradictory. Until we can be on one page, respect individuals as far as blacks, Hispanics, minorities, as being equal, I feel like we're showing more respect toward the flag than we're showing other people. I don't disrespect the flag. I want to stand for the flag, but my decision to kneel is deeper than what you think. It goes back deep in history. I can elaborate, but I choose not to.
"Racism, it's not just white people. I know some racist black people, too. So people shouldn't just pinpoint that to say, 'we're saying that all white people are racist or all black people are racist.' It has nothing to do with race to a certain extent. I'm blessed to be well off as far as being successful, being able to live the lifestyle I am, but I'm doing it for my kids. My children have to go to school, too. My children have to live in this world, too. If Donald Trump is our advocate for America, certain things that he says, he should think before he says them."
"From the top, from our owners to our head coach to all the players, we all agreed on one thing — once we get out on the field, once we're in the public eye, it's all about love and equality. That's all that was a demonstration of, just love and equality. I also said a prayer for our nation and our leaders, just in the times we have today.
"For me, as a black man in this country, I've seen first-hand why Colin Kaepernick started it. Being pulled over for no reason, sitting on the curb with my hands in handcuffs for no reason. Stuff like that. And also, I've got kids, you know what I mean? I've got kids, man. I've got a son that's going to be a black man at this country at one point, and I don't want him to have to go through that."
How they're giving back
Here is just a sampling of how the Bills who did elect to kneel for the anthem are giving back to their community:
• Alexander established the ACES Foundation. Its mission is to support youth through emphasizing accountability, taking pride in the community, striving for educational excellence and promising a healthy mind, body and spirit through sports. This offseason, Alexander made numerous school visits in Western New York, hosted a celebrity bowling tournament in Virginia and a football camp in his hometown of Oakland.
• Clay, a native of Long Beach, Calif., has done a Christmas toy drive in his hometown. He is in the process of beginning his own foundation.
• Dareus operates the Dareus Foundation, which supports building communities and strong families. He visited Haiti during the 2006 offseason on a three-day humanitarian mission and donated $25,000 to the recovery mission following Hurricane Matthew. Since 2011, Dareus has his a holiday party at the Williams-Emslie Family YMCA, in which he dresses as Santa Claus and hands out toys to nearly 200 children. He donated $10,000 to the YMCA of Buffalo-Niagara in 2016. In June, Dareus threw out the first pitch at a Buffalo Bisons' game, where he hosted youth from the Boys & Girls Club of Buffalo and made a donation to the Bisons' charitable foundation.
• Davis runs the Ryan Davis Foundation. Since 2015 he has hosted a "Back to School Bash" in his hometown of Tampa, Fla. Davis distributes backpacks for more than 500 children packed with school supplies. "It's almost like a big block party," he said. "I have the police come out there and talk to the kids. I want them to see the police are not the bad guys. I have a whole bunch of activities for the kids. That's been my baby for the last three years. I'm going to keep it going for as long as I can."
• McCoy 's foundation, Shades of Greatness, was started in honor of his grandmother, Maryann Branch, and is dedicated to helping the fight against Lou Gehrig's Disease. It provides direct support to individuals battling ALS. McCoy has hosted a charity softball game for four years to support the foundation. Each year in his hometown of Harrisburg, Pa., and in Buffalo he conducts a backpack giveaway in September, a turkey giveaway for Thanksgiving and cold-weather gear around Christmas time.
• Thornton served as principal for a day at Jimmy Brown Elementary School in his home town of Star City, Ark., and took $10,000 worth of new books with him to encourage students to read more.
• Tolbert operates the S.P.A.D.E. Foundation, which stands for Single Parenting and Developing Education. The foundation works to assist underprivileged children within single-parent situations.
• Wright hosted his first "Fun Damental" football camp at Colton High School in his hometown of Colton, Calif., in July. He also donates Thanksgiving turkeys to those in need.
That is not to say that those who did not take a knee aren't doing their part, too.
"Guys in the NFL have been doing stuff for years," Matthews said. "If we start saying, 'OK, now what we've got to do is everybody has to make sure that everybody knows they're doing something good in the community.' Now we're not even doing that for the right reasons. Now we're doing it to show like, 'See here, look, I help out people.'
"To be honest, I don't even like to answer that question. There's going to be things in the community that I tell nobody about. I like to do stuff and not tweet, not even mention it, because I feel like that's where the authenticity is. I feel like we have actually too much of people wanting to do stuff and then display it to the world. So respectfully, I don't want to say what we're doing, but just know we're trying to push forward."